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by Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson, at 03:07 pm, August 27, 2018, History

The horrifying legal case of 19-year-old Celia who was executed for burning her slavemaster after years of sexual abuse

-photo- Barbara Seyda book cover-

Robert Newsom purchased Celia at the age of 14. He was an old man in his 70s and a prosperous farmer owning more than eight hundred acres of land on which enslaved Africans worked. Before purchasing Celia, Robert had no female slave. He made a move to purchase her a year after his wife’s death in 1849 on account of the fact that he needed a female to help with all sorts of domestic work in his vast mansion.

On their return back to his home in Missouri from Audrain County, Robert sexually molested the 14-year-old beginning the years of sexual slavery, abuse and exploitation. She was forced to live in a cabin very close to the main mansion where he could have easy access to her and keep her away from the enslaved men.

Slaves usually lived far off the central estate to prevent attacks, but Robert had explained that Celia needed to be close due to domestic work. Between 1850 and 1855, Celia gave birth to two children who belonged to Robert but which he denied claiming that they belonged to her longtime boyfriend George, a slave on the Newsom plantations.

In June 1855, after finding out that she was pregnant for the 3rd time, Celia’s boyfriend, George urged Celia to find a way to end her abuse or forget about their relationship. Very desperate and tired of the damaging experience, Celia resorted to begging Robert Newsom’s family to help her escape or find protection while she worked for him, but the family ignored her. She also warned Robert that she would hurt him if he attempted to have sex with her again.

On the night of June 23, 1855, 19-year-old Celia was asleep when Robert crept into her cabin and began to forcefully have his way with her. While in the process of struggling, Celia grabbed a club she hid for protection in her room and hit Robert’s head twice. Realizing that he was dead, she dragged his body into a fire, waited for his body to burn and crashed his bones into powder leaving the more prominent bones that could not be crushed to smoke in the fire.

After Robert’s disappearance became suspicious and the bones were found in a fire. Celia was arrested the next day while going about her usual domestic work. She was locked up and processed for a hearing, a case which became known as Missouri v. Celia.

Celia was charged with first-degree murder and the court appointed John Jameson, Isaac M. Boulware and Nathan Chapman to defend 19-year-old Celia against an all-white jury and Circuit Court Judge William Hall. She pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Celia confessed to her attornies who in turn fought for her freedom. Her attorneys argued that the law of Missouri stated that slaves had the legal right to protect and preserve their lives anyhow they could. The law permitted force when necessary.

They also argued that the Missouri Law clearly stated that it was a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace, or duress, compel her to be defiled.” This made Celia justifiable for the crime that she had committed because enslaved women fit perfectly into “any woman bracket”. Robert had therefore trespassed.

Unfortunately for Celia, the court allowed for the children, friends and doctor of Robert to testify as witnesses but no one was allowed to testify for her. The court did not accept the argument presented by her appointed attorneys. Celia was found guilty on the basis that once a slave was purchased, he or she became the property of their owners. Robert Newsom, therefore, had every right to do to his property as he pleased and was not trespassing because Celia was his property. It also stated that the right to use force as a means of protection did not extend to sexual assault.

On November 1, 1855, Celia was sentenced to hanging and on Friday, November 16, 1855, she managed to escape from prison and went into hiding for a while.

Celia was captured and sent back to prison. Her attorneys appealed for her case to be revisited, but the court overturned the appeal. Celia’s sentence was delayed until after birth. After having a stillbirth, on December 21, 1855, Celia was taken to the Calloway Courthouse in Missouri where she was hanged until she died.

It is not difficult to realise that enslaved African women went through more horrifying experiences. Perhaps their experiences have not been fully explored and shared due to the state of its dark and disturbing weight. The story of 19-year-old Celia serves as a typical example.

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